For three hours Feb. 9, no one talked about Iraq.
No one worried about what sort of nuclear arsenal the North Koreans were developing. No one argued over which color of the veritable rainbow of terror our country’s national alert system was maintaining. For three hours we were blessed with a cloud of innocent insulation that only the truly great, the truly original can provide.
During the NBA all-star game, the nation collectively sat and watched. But for at least this brief interlude, it watched in awe, not in fear, in admiration, not in uncertainty. For we knew what the result would be.
No matter what else happened, Michael Jordan would perform when he needed to most. He is a man who made the impossible become the inevitable.
We didn’t watch to see what would happen, but how it would happen, and we were still amazed when it did. We watched a cultural icon supplant his already mythic place in American history.
Jordan turned 40 years old on Feb.17. He is playing his final season, and this all-star game was his last. He doesn’t explode to the hole like he once did. He doesn’t guard the opposing teams best player anymore. He gets tendonitis in his knees, shoots three for twelve some nights, and every once in a while, he even gets his shot blocked. But when the light shines brightest, it is Jordan’s silhouette that still occupies the frame and raptures our imaginations.
So was there any doubt, with the game tied and the East with possession with 20 seconds left in the first overtime, who would get the ball? And was there any doubt what he would do with it once he got it?
Jordan caught it on the left wing and went to work, as all but he and defender Shawn Marion backed away, seemingly in an effort to get the best possible view of the imminent magic.
Marion suffocated Jordan, practically wore his jersey, as he desperately tried to be the man to stop the legend, to impede what seemed like divine will.
Jordan backed in, but Marion stood his ground. With five seconds left, Jordan went up, and Marion went up with him, higher than him. Jordan faded just enough to get his shot off, just by that one inch.
The arc off the ball allowed for a suspension in time, a delay of the inevitable. The ball didn’t just go in, it went right in the heart, barely even grazing the net.
Jordan pumped a confident but subdued fist, a replacement of the acrobatic, youthful celebrations that once punctuated each stroke of brilliance.
The atmosphere was pure frenzy. An exuberant Bill Walton shot up his massive arms in a spontaneous show of joy from the front row. Billion dollar egos put away their game faces and smiled like the children they were when Jordan first inspired them to take up the game.
It is of no consequence that Kobe Bryant made two free throws to tie the game, or that the West subsequently won the game in the second overtime. Jordan’s legacy is one of images, a legacy that can’t be depleted by time or circumstance.
I am the Michael Jordan generation. A generation that saw Jordan create escapism so profound that it became life itself. It is a generation of kids that went to bed with Jordan’s image hanging over their bed posts and went to school wearing it on their feet.
Jordan abolished the notion of expectation, obliterated the concept of boundaries and limits. He is the reason we stayed at the park after our mothers begged us to come home, the reason we learned to shoot in the dark and listen for the net. He is the reason we let our hands get so sooty from dribbling the ball on the pavement that they wouldn’t come clean for a week.
We watched his career evolve. He was the best player the game had ever seen before he was 30, and then he got serious. We remember that shot he hit over Craig Ehlo in the playoffs. We remember when he dunked from the free throw line. We remember him shrugging off Byron Russell with a cross-over dribble and knocking down the shot in Utah that guaranteed his sixth and last championship.
As Michael Jordan turns 40 and leaves the game, we are no longer kids, and it makes us sad. But every once in a while, the world backs away and time stops, and we remember what captivated us in the first place.